Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is known as Alaska in miniature because of its varied habitats. A river runs through it, toothe Kenai River, where the sockeye and king salmon fishing is legendary. Angling for salmon in that river is the experience that most visitors seek. But for an adventurous few, the refuge offers an exceptional opportunity: fishing for Arctic char in wilderness.
Of the 1.92 million acres within the southcentral Alaska refuge, 1.32 million are Congressionally designated wilderness.
The Kenai Wilderness is punctuated with hundreds of small lakes. More than 350 miles of established trails simplify travel into much of this backcountry, including the Swanson River and Swan Lake national recreation canoe trails. Planning and executing a trip into wilderness, whether for one day or several days, takes work. However, venturesome visitors are aptly rewarded with spectacular scenery, solitude and fishing for a combination of species rarely found in the United States.
Jack Dean says there is nothing like fishing still, clear water on a densely forested lake in wilderness and having Arctic char take your lure.
Theyre hard fighters with lots of enduranceand excellent eating, better than rainbow [trout] or coho [salmon], he says. In three hours, you can portage your canoe to the lake of your choice and have enough fishing time to be successful. The only people you usually see are those you take with you.
Dean, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries biologist, says that most of the char are in the twopound range, but he has caught his share of threepounders. According to Dean, who now volunteers his services to study the species, Arctic char are closely related to salmon and lake trout. They are so similar that anglers often mistake char for more common Dolly Varden trout.
Arctic char are found in the lakes throughout the Swanson River and Swan Lake canoe trails and are most easily caught in spring, when the air is warmer than the water. During the fall, as air and water temperatures decrease, the char again become more available, having spent the summer in the deeper, colder water. September also finds a significant spawning run of coho or silver salmon occurring in the creeks connecting the canoe trails. But, says Dean, in the spring you are fishing before the mosquitoes come out.
While visitors enjoying the canoe trails must take care to preserve wilderness value and character, recreational activities arecontrary to widespread beliefpermitted in wilderness. In fact, the Wilderness Act of 1964 explicitly states that wilderness has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation and shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation and historical use.
To help preserve wilderness quality for all, visitors must follow some simple regulations when fishing within the canoe trails of the Kenai Wilderness. There are three entrances to the canoe trails, all adjacent to the road system. Groups can be no larger than 15 people, and everyone is required to register at one of the three entrances before launching. It is advisable to leave a trip plan with family or friends before beginning your journey because there is no cell phone reception. Boat motors, chainsaws and other motorized items are not allowed, nor are wheeled (or mechanical) vehicles, such as bicycles or canoe carts. There are no developed campgrounds within the canoe trail system.
All of which seems a small price to pay for a potential fishing trip of a lifetime.
Janet Schmidt is supervisory park ranger at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.